Tag Archives: Engineering

Simulating photovoltaic power plants with Energy3D

Modeling 1,000 PV panels in a desert
Solar radiation simulation
We have just added new modeling capacities to our Energy3D software for simulating photovoltaic (PV) power stations. With these additions, the latest version of the software can now simulate rooftop solar panels, solar parks, and solar power plants. Our plan is to develop Energy3D into a "one stop shop" for solar simulations. The goal is to provide students an accessible (yet powerful) tool to learn science and engineering in the context of renewable energy and professionals an easy-to-use (yet accurate) tool to design, predict, and optimize renewable energy generation.

Users can easily copy and paste solar panels to create an array and then duplicate arrays to create more arrays. In this way, users can rapidly add many solar panels. Each solar panel can be rotated around three different axes (normal, zenith, and azimuth). With this flexibility, users can create a PV array in any direction and orientation. At any time, they can adjust the direction and orientation of any or all solar panels.
PV arrays that are oriented differently


What is in the design of a solar power plant? While the orientation is a no-brainer, the layout may need some thinking and planning, especially for a site that has a limited area. Another factor that affects the layout is the design of the solar tracking system used to maximize the output. Also, considering that many utility companies offer peak and off-peak prices for electricity, users may explore strategies of orienting some PV arrays towards the west or southwest for the solar power plant to produce more energy in the afternoon when the demand is high in the summer, especially in the south.

Rooftop PV arrays
In addition to designing PV arrays on the ground, users can do the same thing for flat rooftops as well. Unlike solar panels on pitched roofs of residential buildings, those on flat roofs of large buildings are usually tilted.

We are currently implementing solar trackers so that users can design solar power plants that maximize their outputs based on tracking the sun. Meanwhile, mirror reflector arrays will be added to support the design of concentrated solar power plants. These features should be available soon. Stay tuned!

Energy3D makes designing realistic buildings easy

The annual yield and cost benefit analyses of rooftop solar panels based on sound scientific and engineering principles are critical steps to the financial success of building solarization. Google's Project Sunroof provides a way for millions of property owners to get recommendations for the right solar solutions.



Another way to conduct accurate scientific analysis of solar panel outputs based on their layout on the rooftop is to use a computer-aided engineering (CAE) tool to do a three-dimensional, full-year analysis based on ab initio scientific simulation. Under the support of the National Science Foundation since 2010, we have been developing Energy3D, a piece of CAE software that has the goal of bringing the power of sophisticated scientific and engineering simulations to children and laypersons. To achieve this goal, a key step is to support users to rapidly sketch up their own buildings and the surrounding objects that may affect their solar potentials. We feel that most CAD tools out there are probably too difficult for average users to create realistic models of their own houses. This forces us to invent new solutions.

We have recently added countless new features to Energy3D to progress towards this goal. The latest version allows many common architectural styles found in most parts of the US to be created and their solar potential to be studied. The screenshots embedded in this article demonstrate this capability. With the current version, each of these designs took myself approximately an hour to create from scratch. But we will continue to push the limit.

The 3D construction user interface has been developed based on the tenet of supporting users to create any structure using a minimum set of building blocks and operations. Once users master a relatively small set of rules, they are empowered to create almost any shape of building as they wish.

Solar yield analysis of the first house
The actual time-consuming part is to get the right dimension and orientation of a real building and the surrounding tall objects such as trees.
Google's 3D map may provide a way to extract these data. Once the approximate geometry of a building is determined, users can easily put solar panels anywhere on the roof to check out their energy yield. They can then try as many different layouts as they wish to compare the yields and select an optimal layout. This is especially important for buildings that may have partial shades and sub-optimal orientations. CAE tools such as Energy3D can be used to do spatial and temporal analysis and report daily outputs of each panel in the array, allowing users to obtain fine-grained, detailed results and thus providing a good simulation of solar panels in day-to-day operation.

The engineering principles behind this solar design, assessment, and optimization process based on science is exactly what the Next Generation Science Standards require K-12 students in the US to learn and practice. So why not ask children for help to solarize their own homes, schools, and communities, at least virtually? The time for doing this can never be better. And we have paved the road for this vision by creating one of easiest 3D interfaces with compelling scientific visualizations that can potentially entice and engage a lot of students. It is time for us to test the idea.

To see more designs, visit this page.

The National Science Foundation funds SmartCAD—an intelligent learning system for engineering design

We are pleased to announce that the National Science Foundation has awarded the Concord Consortium, Purdue University, and the University of Virginia a $3 million, four-year collaborative project to conduct research and development on SmartCAD, an intelligent learning system that informs engineering design of students with automatic feedback generated using computational analysis of their work.

Engineering design is one of the most complex learning processes because it builds on top of multiple layers of inquiry, involves creating products that meet multiple criteria and constraints, and requires the orchestration of mathematical thinking, scientific reasoning, systems thinking, and sometimes, computational thinking. Teaching and learning engineering design becomes important as it is now officially part of the Next Generation Science Standards in the United States. These new standards mandate every student to learn and practice engineering design in every science subject at every level of K-12 education.
Figure 1

In typical engineering projects, students are challenged to construct an artifact that performs specified functions under constraints. What makes engineering design different from other design practices such as art design is that engineering design must be guided by scientific principles and the end products must operate predictably based on science. A common problem observed in students' engineering design activities is that their design work is insufficiently informed by science, resulting in the reduction of engineering design to drawing or crafting. To circumvent this problem, engineering design curricula often encourage students to learn or review the related science concepts and practices before they try to put the design elements together to construct a product. After students create a prototype, they then test and evaluate it using the governing scientific principles, which, in turn, gives them a chance to deepen their understanding of the scientific principles. This common approach of learning is illustrated in the upper image of Figure 1.

There is a problem in the common approach, however. Exploring the form-function relationship is a critical inquiry step to understanding the underlying science. To determine whether a change of form can result in a desired function, students have to build and test a physical prototype or rely on the opinions of an instructor. This creates a delay in getting feedback at the most critical stage of the learning process, slowing down the iterative cycle of design and cutting short the exploration in the design space. As a result of this delay, experimenting and evaluating "micro ideas"--very small stepwise ideas such as those that investigate a design parameter at a time--through building, revising, and testing physical prototypes becomes impractical in many cases. From the perspective of learning, however, it is often at this level of granularity that foundational science and engineering design ultimately meet.

Figure 2
All these problems can be addressed by supporting engineering design with a computer-aided design (CAD) platform that embeds powerful science simulations to provide formative feedback to students in a timely manner. Simulations based on solving fundamental equations in science such as Newton’s Laws model the real world accurately and connect many science concepts coherently. Such simulations can computationally generate objective feedback about a design, allowing students to rapidly test a design idea on a scientific basis. Such simulations also allow the connections between design elements and science concepts to be explicitly established through fine-grained feedback, supporting students to make informed design decisions for each design element one at a time, as illustrated by the lower image of Figure 1. These scientific simulations give the CAD software tremendous disciplinary intelligence and instructional power, transforming it into a SmartCAD system that is capable of guiding student design towards a more scientific end.

Despite these advantages, there are very few developmentally appropriate CAD software available to K-12 students—most CAD software used in industry not only are science “black boxes” to students, but also require a cumbersome tool chaining of pre-processors, solvers, and post-processors, making them extremely challenging to use in secondary education. The SmartCAD project will fill in this gap with key educational features centered on guiding student design with feedback composed from simulations. For example, science simulations can be used to analyze student design artifacts and compute their distances to specific goals to detect whether students are zeroing in towards those goals or going astray. The development of these features will also draw upon decades of research on formative assessments of complex learning.

Scanning radiation flux with moving sensors in Energy2D

Figure 1: Moving sensors facing a rectangular radiator.
The heat flux sensor in Energy2D can be used to measure radiative heat flux, as well as conductive and convective heat fluxes. Radiative heat flux depends on not only the temperature of the object the sensor measures but also the angle at which it faces the object. The latter is known as the view factor.

In radiative heat transfer, a view factor between two surfaces A and B is the proportion of the radiation which leaves surface A that strikes surface B. If the two surfaces face each other directly, the view factor is greater than the case in which they do not. If the two surfaces are closer, the view factor is greater.

Figure 2: Rotating sensors inside and outside a ring radiator.
To conveniently visualize the effect of a view factor, Energy2D allows you to attach a heat flux sensor to a moving or rotating particle, with a settable linear or angular velocity. In this way, we can set up sensors to automatically "scan" the field of radiation heat flux like a radar.

Figure 1 shows a moving sensor and a rotating sensor, as well as the data they record. A third sensor is also placed to the right of an object that is being heated by the radiator. This object has an emissivity of one so it also radiates. Its radiation flux is recorded by the third sensor whose data shows a slowly increasing heat flux as the object slowly warms up.

As an interesting test case, Figure 2 shows two rotating sensors, one placed precisely at the center of a ring radiator and the other outside. The almost steady line recorded by the first sensor suggests that the view factor at the center does not change, which makes sense. The small sawtooth shape is due to the limitation of discretization in our numerical simulation.

Spring is here, let there be trees!

Trees in Energy3D.
Trees around a house not only add natural beauty but also increase energy efficiency. Deciduous trees to the south of a house let sunlight shine into the house through south-facing windows in the winter while blocking sunlight in the summer, thus providing a simple but effective solution that attains both passive heating and passive cooling using the trees' shedding cycles. Trees to the west and east of a house can also create significant shading to help keep the house cool in the summer. All together, a well-planed landscape can reduce the temperature of a house in a hot day by up to 20°C.

The tree to the south side shades the house in the summer.
With the latest version of Energy3D, students can add trees in designs. As shown in the second image in this blog post, the Solar Irradiation Simulator in Energy3D can visualize how trees shade the house and provide passive cooling in the summer.

The Solar Irradiation Simulator also provides numeric results to help students make design decisions. The calculated data show that the tree to the south of the house is able to reduce the sunlight shined through the window on the first floor that is closest to it by almost 90%. Students can do this easily by adding and removing the tree, re-run the simulation, and then compare the numbers. They will be able to add trees of different heights and types (deciduous or evergreen). There will be a lot of design variables that students can choose and test.

A design challenge is to combine windows, solar panels, and trees to reduce the yearly cost of a building to nearly zero or even negative (meaning that the owner of the house actually makes money by giving unused energy produced by the solar panels to the utility company). This is no longer just a possibility -- it has been a reality, even in a northern state like Massachusetts!

Modeling Physical Behavior with an Atomic Engine

Our Next-Generation Molecular Workbench (MW) software usually models molecular dynamics—from states of matter and phase changes to diffusion and gas laws. Recently, we adapted the Molecular Dynamics 2D engine to model macroscale physics mechanics as well, including pendulums and springs.

In order to scale up the models from microscopic to macroscopic, we employ specific unit-scaling conventions. The Next-Generation Molecular Workbench (MW) engine simulates molecular behavior by treating atoms as particles that obey Newton’s laws. For example, the bond between two atoms is treated as a spring that obeys Hooke’s law, and electrostatic interactions between charged ions follow Coulomb’s Law.

Dipole-dipole interactions simulated using Coulomb’s Law.

At the microscale, the Next-Generation MW engine calculates the forces between molecules or atoms using atomic mass units (amu), nanometers (10−9 meters) and femtoseconds (10-15 seconds), and depicts their motion. To simulate macroscopic particles that follow the same laws, we can imagine them as microscopic particles with masses in amu, distance in nanometers, and timescales measured in femtoseconds. Once the Next-Generation MW engine calculates the movement of these atomic-scale particles, we simply multiply the length, mass and time units by the correct scaling factors. This motion satisfies the same physical laws as the atomic motion but is now measured in meters, kilograms and seconds.

In the pendulum simulation below, the Next-Generation MW engine models the behavior of a pendulum by treating it as two atoms connected by a very stiff bond with a very long equilibrium length. The topmost atom is restrained to become a “pivot” while the bottom atom “swings” because of the stiff bond. Once the engine has calculated the force using the atomic-scale units, it converts the mass, velocity and acceleration to the appropriate units for large, physical objects like the pendulum.

Large-scale physical behavior simulated with a molecular dynamics engine.

In order to appropriately model the physical behavior of a pendulum or a spring, we use specific scaling constants. Independent scaling constants for mass, distance and time enable us to convert nanometers to meters, atomic mass units to kilograms and femtoseconds to model seconds. Using the same scaling constants, we can derive other physical conversions, such as elementary charge unit to Coulomb. In order to make one model second pass for every real second, we adjusted the amount of model time between each page refresh. We also chose to simulate a gravitation field—a feature usually absent in molecular dynamics simulators—because it is relevant to macroscopic phenomena.

From microscale to macroscale, the Next-Generation Molecular Workbench engine is a powerful modeling tool that we can use to simulate a wide variety of biological, chemical, and physical phenomena.  Find more simulations at mw.concord.org/nextgen/interactives.

Engineers use Energy2D to simulate rocket mass heaters

Link to simulation
A rocket mass heater is an innovative and highly efficient space heating system, which is popular among natural building DIYers since its invention in 1970s. A number of engineers who are interested in rocket stove design have used our Energy2D software to visualize the thermal physics involved.
Link to simulation

Martin Karl Waldenburg from Germany has designed a series of simplified rocket stove simulations. With his permission, we have published his simulations on our Energy2D website. This blog post provides links to three of his simulations. Another one was created by Pinhead of the Rocket Stove Forum (who also gave us permission to publish his simulation).

Link to simulation
Link to simulation
Since Energy2D hasn't supported chemical reactions yet, in all these simulations, burning is simulated using a heater with a fan to approximate the driving pressure due to combustion.

We will continue to work on Energy2D's computational engine and improve its graphical user interface. Currently, we are plowing through the math needed to model thermal radiation, chemical reactions, and phase changes. Once these features are added, we hope more people will find it useful, educational, and entertaining.

NSTA Reports features the Engineering Energy Efficiency Project

Link to NSTA news
NSTA Reports is the National Science Teachers Association’s newspaper published nine times a year as a free member service. In January, our Engineering Energy Efficiency Project was one of the three projects featured in a report about "meaningfully integrating science and engineering."

The Engineering Energy Efficiency Project is funded by the National Science Foundation through a research grant.

Detecting students’ "brain waves" during engineering design using a CAD tool

Design a city block with Energy3D.
We were in a school these two weeks doing a project that aims to understand how students learn engineering design. This has been a difficult research topic as engineering design is an extremely complicated cognitive process that involves the application of science and mathematics -- another two sets of complicated subjects themselves.


Two types of problems are commonly encountered in the classroom. The first type is related to using a "cookbook" approach that confines students to step-by-step procedures to complete a "design" project. I added double quotes because this kind of project often leads to identical or similar products from students, violating the first principle of design that mandates alternatives and varieties. However, if we make the design project completely open-ended, we will run into the second type of problem: The arbitrariness and caprice in student designs often make it difficult for teachers and researchers to assess student thinking and learning reliably. As much as we want students to be creative and open-minded, we also want to ensure that they learn what is intended and we must provide an objective way to evaluate their learning outcomes.


To tackle these issues, we are taking a computer science-based approach. Computer-aided design (CAD) tools offer an opportunity for us to move the entire process of engineering design to the computer (this is what CAD tools are designed for in the first place for industry folks). What we need to do in our research is to add a few more things to support data mining.

A sample design of the city block.
This blog post reports a timeline tool that we have developed to measure student activity levels while engaged in using a CAD tool (our Energy3D CAD software in this case) to solve a design challenge. This timeline tool is basically a logger that records the number of the learner's design actions at a given frequency (say, 2-4 times a minute) during a design session. These design actions are defined to be the "atomic" actions stored in the Undo Manager of the CAD tool we are using. The timeline approximately describes the user's frequency of construction actions with the CAD tool. As the human-computer interaction is ultimately driven by the brain, this kind of timeline data could be regarded as a reflection of the user's "brain wave."

There are four things that characterize such a timeline graph:

A sample timeline graph.
  • The height of a spike measures the action intensity at that moment, i.e., how many actions the user has taken since the last recording;
  • The density of spikes measures the continuity and persistence of actions over a time period;
  • A gap indicates an off-task time window: A short idling window may be an effect of instruction or discussion;
  • The trend of height and density may be related to loss of interest or improvement of proficiency in the CAD tool: If the intensity (the combination of height and density of spikes) drops consistently over time, the student's interest may be fading away; if the intensity increases consistently over time, the student might be improving on using the design tool to explore design options.
Timeline graphs from six students.
Of course, this kind of timeline data is not perfect. It certainly has many limitations in measuring learning. We are still in the process of analyzing these timeline data and juxtaposing them with other artifacts we have gathered from the students to provide a more comprehensive picture of design learning. But the timeline analysis represents a rudimentary step towards a more rigorous methodology for performance assessment of engineering design.

The above six "brain wave" graphs were collected from six students in a 90-minute class period. Hopefully, these data will lead to a way to identify novice designers' behaviors and patterns when they are solving a design challenge.